Higher education learning how difficult and costly it is to lose public's trust

April 12, 1992|By New York Times News Service

With one of New Jersey's state colleges named for his family, it is only natural that former Gov. Thomas H. Kean, now the president of Drew University, should be more sensitive than most university officials to the public's image of higher education.

Mr. Kean recently addressed 400 educators in Philadelphia and leveled with them about how colleges and universities, including Kean College of New Jersey, are now perceived by the public.

"Here is the reality, plain and simple," he told his audience. "Our ivory tower is under siege. People are questioning our mission and questioning who we are. They claim we cost too much, spend carelessly, teach poorly, plan myopically, and when we are questioned, we act defensively."

Higher education may have been the last great institution in American society to enjoy unstinting public trust -- but no more.

Now, like medicine, religion and other important and once-revered fields, higher education is discovering how difficult, and how costly, it can be to be scorned.

Louis Harris, the public opinion pollster who has been tracking confidence in public institutions since 1966, says trust in universities has been ebbing over the past five years.

Now, only 25 percent of those polled say they have a great deal of confidence in the people running higher education, compared with the high point of 56 percent in 1966.

"Universities did better than other institutions for a while," Mr. Harris said in an interview, "but now they're coming back to the pack."

The loss of public trust has been most dramatic in public higher education. Until the end of the 1980s, the state university systems had enjoyed more than 30 years of steady financial support.

The economic recession of the past few years would have forced the states to moderate spending anyway, but as universities' images grew darker it became easier for legislators to target professors who seemed underworked and administrative staffs that appeared to be bloated.

In almost every state, the universities are getting a shrinking percentage of the state's overall spending -- an indication, many say, of a public perception that higher education has grown fat.

Part of the reason for universities' unpopularity is a string of unsavory episodes.

These include: college athletics scandals over point-shaving and improper recruiting; the controversy over the inclusion of non-Western authors in humanities curricula at the expense of traditional Western figures; a U.S. Justice Department antitrust suit against Ivy League colleges, which were accused of colluding on financial aid grants; and the disclosure -- for many, the last straw -- that Stanford and other universities had improperly charged the federal government for indirect research expenditures that included the upkeep of a yacht, and the purchases of personal furniture and flowers.

Tainted by such allegations and by lingering suspicions among parents and legislators that tuition increases are not justified, most colleges and universities have indeed come under siege.

University-bashing has become so popular that the American Association for Higher Education, an organization of 8,000 administrators, professors and staff members, chose as the main topic for its annual conference "Reclaiming the Public Trust."

Catherine T. Stimpson, dean of the graduate school at Rutgers University, said universities are only partly to blame for the shift in public attitudes.

She pointed to "a decade of half-truth and distortions about the reality of higher education, all of which culminated in the PC debate."

PC, or political correctness, has evolved into a catchall campus put-down. It is used to accuse universities of pandering to members of minority groups and others who might be considered "victims" by adopting requirements such as multicultural curriculums and codes to ban offensive speech.

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